Happy 25th Anniversary to Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik, originally released September 24, 1991.
“Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts. Over and over you play this out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn….And once the storm is over you won't remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won't even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won't be the same person who walked in. That's what this storm's all about.” – Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore (2002)
Though the Red Hot Chili Peppers have tasted massive success many times over during the past two and a half decades, the early roads they traversed to get to their more-than-comfortable current state were seldom smoothly paved. Indeed, the inaugural chapter of the story that is the band’s remarkable and resilient career calls to mind the celebrated Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s metaphorical storm in various ways, many of which shall be reexamined here.
Formed in 1983 by a foursome of freewheeling Fairfax High School classmates in Los Angeles, the band was originally known by the amateurishly alliterative mouthful of a name, Tony Flow and the Miraculously Majestic Masters of Mayhem. Thankfully, once Anthony Kiedis (vocals), Michael “Flea” Balzary (bass), Hillel Slovak (guitar), and Jack Irons (drums) began performing live and developing a more serious reputation across the L.A. club scene on the strength of their largely improvised musical mélange, they wisely decided to switch to their current, more fitting and far less pretentious moniker. While their newly adopted band name stuck, their lineup would prove to be anything but stable.
Owing to their incendiary early performances and unique punk-funk-rock-rap fusions, which they captured on their first six-song demo tape, the Red Hot Chili Peppers wasted little time in securing their first record deal, and a substantial one to boot. In November 1983, they signed a long-term, seven-album deal with the EMI-distributed Enigma Records.
Less than a year later, they released their self-titled debut album to lukewarm reviews and lackluster sales. The ho-hum reception that greeted Red Hot Chili Peppers was presumably the inevitable culmination of a recording process plagued by the band’s own skepticism toward producer Andy Gill’s production approach, which exchanged the band’s inherent rawness for a noticeably glossier sonic sheen. In the wake of the album’s poor performance, Slovak and Irons quit the band to focus on their other group What is This? and were soon replaced by Jack Sherman and Cliff Martinez, now a revered film composer (Traffic, Solaris), respectively. Slovak would rejoin the Peppers shortly thereafter, however, and Irons would follow suit a few years later.
For an aspiring funk band, there may very well be no higher honor than to have Parliament-Funkadelic mastermind George Clinton endorse your music. Not only did Dr. Funkenstein embrace the Red Hot Chili Peppers, he produced their sophomore LP Freaky Styley, which arrived in the summer of 1985. His legendary P-Funk compatriots, saxophonist Maceo Parker and trombonist Fred Wesley, also featured prominently across the album. Despite the high-profile musicians associated with the project and the band’s all-around satisfaction with how the album turned out, Freaky Styley failed to move the needle from a commercial standpoint.
As the recording sessions for their third album proceeded in 1986, with all four founding members back in the fold including Irons, the band’s progress was inhibited by various members’ drug problems, including both Kiedis and Slovak’s shared penchant for heroin. Per the coaxing of his family and bandmates, Kiedis sought treatment for his addiction, ultimately achieving a few months of drug-free living. But the clean streak would prove short-lived, as Kiedis resurrected his habit, which made the recording of The Uplift Mofo Party Plan more challenging than anticipated. But Kiedis and the band pressed on in the studio and released the album in late September 1987. The album was the first of the band’s albums to secure a ranking within the Billboard 200, peaking at number 148, but its fleeting chart appearance ultimately failed to translate into meaningful sales.
Kiedis and Slovak’s codependent heroin obsession intensified in the year following The Uplift Mofo Party Plan’s release, tragically culminating in Slovak’s fatal overdose on June 25, 1988. Fearing the same fate for their frontman and attempting to reconcile the band’s uncertain future, the band met to discuss what was to come next. Irons left the band for the second time, but Kiedis and Flea decided to persevere and recruit new bandmates to replace their departed drummer and fallen friend. Still reeling from the latter’s death, which served as a powerfully persuasive wake-up call, Kiedis returned to rehab once again. This time, the treatment did the trick, thanks to Kiedis’ emboldened commitment to getting and staying clean, once and for all.
Kiedis and Flea invited guitarist DeWayne "Blackbyrd" McKnight (formerly of Parliament-Funkadelic) and drummer D.H. Peligro (of Dead Kennedys) to join the group. But alas, the partnership with both musicians didn’t last long, and both were dismissed from the band.
The remedy for the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ ever-fluid personnel arrived in the form of guitarist John Frusciante and drummer Chad Smith, who together with Kiedis and Flea, formed what would eventually become the most enduring and prolific lineup of the band’s career. The quartet’s initial output was Mother’s Milk, the group’s fourth studio LP released in August 1989, which reflected their musical maturation yet still retained their signature hybrid of styles with bass-driven funk at the forefront. Initial commercial reception was tepid and chart positions were modest at best. But propelled by their cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” and second single “Knock Me Down,” the album fell just shy of a top 50 charting in the Billboard 200 and sales remained steady enough, with the LP certified gold for 500,000 units shipped in less than a year (the album ultimately earned a platinum plaque).
With super-stardom still elusive following a string of well-received but commercially underwhelming records, the band decided to cut their losses with EMI and sign a new recording contract with Warner Bros. “It’s not as if a record company has to understand your music,” Frusciante insisted to UK rock magazine Kerrang! in September 1991. “But they should be good at selling it!” Warner Bros. would exercise their sales muscle soon enough.
With fresh label support and a reinvigorated mindset, the group got to work on recording their fifth album in the spring of 1991. Though he had previously declined the band’s invitation to produce The Uplift Mofo Party Plan, the revered Def Jam Records co-founder and in-demand soundsmith Rick Rubin agreed to man the helm this time ‘round, and he has remained the Chili Peppers’ producer of choice ever since, most recently producing their 2011 album I’m with You.
Unlike the more dictatorial Michael Beinhorn, who produced The Uplift Mofo Party Plan and Mother’s Milk, Rubin was comfortable being either hands-on or hands-off, depending on what the particular session warranted. Recorded at The Mansion, Rubin’s sprawling (and allegedly haunted) Laurel Canyon recording studio, Blood Sugar Sex Magik exemplified its producer’s flexible approach to stewarding the album that allowed the band more room with which to indulge their creative freedom and stretch their sense of adventure. “We had come into ourselves and we knew what we were and what we wanted to do,” Kiedis recalled to Entertainment Weekly earlier this year. “We recorded every day and it was laid back and there was no pressure and we were willing to try anything.”
Rubin empowered the band to experiment with new sonic and lyrical directions, and the end result is a confident, varied, and masterfully constructed song suite that represents the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ artistic watershed. More melodic and multi-textured than their previous efforts, featuring predominant themes of sex, relationships, addiction, depression and social ills, Blood Sugar Sex Magik is a landmark album not just with respect to its creators’ recorded repertoire, but within the broader context of the entire alternative rock genre. It’s also a remarkably cohesive, consistent, and bloat-free song suite considering its expansive 17 tracks and 73-minute run time.
Among the five official singles released from the album, the stirring lament for a doomed love “Breaking the Girl” is the one I personally revisit most often. Serving as Kiedis’ mea culpa to former girlfriend Carmen Hawk, not to mention showcasing his singing chops, the song eloquently captures the emotional conflicts that arise when two partners possess divergent desires. In this case, Kiedis’ yearning for an untethered lifestyle, partly inherited from his playboy father, was incongruous with his partner’s need for domesticity and stability. Heartbreak was inevitable.
Equally personal and poignant, albeit for different reasons, is the album’s most universally recognizable track. “I was reaching a demoralizing low, just kind of hanging out on the streets and doing my thing and not much else, sadly to say,” Kiedis confided to Rolling Stone, in recalling the inspiration for “Under the Bridge.” “I ran into some fairly unscrupulous characters involved with miniature Mafioso drug rings, and the hangout for one of these gangs was this particular location under a bridge. I ended up going there with this gang member, and the only way that I was allowed to go under this bridge was for him to tell everybody else that I was getting married to his sister. You had to be family to go there. That was one of just hundreds of predicaments that I found myself in, the kind that only drug addiction can bring about.”
Simultaneously a cathartic exorcising of the demons and isolation that Kiedis’ addiction forced him to confront, a hymn for his late friend Slovak, and a love letter to the redemptive force of his hometown of Los Angeles, “Under the Bridge” remains the most emotionally dynamic composition across the Chili Peppers’ canon. The song’s memorable crescendo and climax enhance its power, beginning in minimalist, acoustic guitar driven fashion before Smith’s drum blasts enter at the 2:50 mark followed by the choir’s soaring interpolation of the song’s chorus. Indeed, “Under the Bridge” sounds unlike anything the Chili Peppers, or any band for that matter, have created before or since.
Aside from the plaintive “I Could Have Lied,” Kiedis’ gorgeous meditation on the importance of embracing the truth inspired by his brief romance with Sinead O’Connor, the bulk of Blood Sugar Sex Magik keeps the energy level elevated to a fever pitch. Lead single “Give It Away” is an agitated anthem of altruism, with Kiedis rapping about the need to relinquish one’s preoccupation with material possessions and greed in exchange for more selfless acts of generosity.
Featuring a brief reference to overcoming addiction in the song’s opening lines, third single “Suck My Kiss” is an adrenalized blast of stabbing guitars and pulverizing bass that finds Kiedis “serenading” the object of his lust, with plenty of sexual overtures that admittedly seem tame relative to those heard later on “Sir Psycho Sexy.” Propelled by its Sly Stone inspired funk groove and Frusciante’s killer solo at the 2:30 mark, fifth and final single “If You Have to Ask” is an ebullient, somewhat non-sequitur ode to trusting yourself without reading too deeply into things.
Among the album tracks not released as official singles, three in particular have always piqued my interest. The ferocious album opener “The Power of Equality” is an incisive, impassioned condemnation of the enduring scourge of racial injustice, propelled by Kiedis’ rapid-fire rhymes, which include an apropos shout-out to Public Enemy’s Chuck D. The repeated refrain of “Whatever happened to humanity?” as the track concludes is a question I’m sure many of us are asking ourselves today in 2016, in light of the seemingly endless succession of innocent Black citizens tragically murdered by the bullets of trigger-happy police officers.
Also the name of the documentary film that captured the Blood Sugar Sex Magik recording experience, “Funky Monks” is a slinky little ditty about carnal desires that are anything but monkish, with Kiedis unabashedly confessing that “Every man has certain needs / Talkin' 'bout them dirty deeds / To these needs I must concede / Livin' by my lowly creed.”
“My Lovely Man” is a rocking homage to the late Slovak that juxtaposes Kiedis’ grief over his fallen friend with his optimistic declaration that the pair will be reunited at some point. “’My Lovely Man’ is about my love for Hillel and the fact that eventually I will find him,” Kiedis explained to Rolling Stone. “It’s kind of like when I die, I am counting on him to save me a seat. And whenever I sing that song, Hillel is completely in my world.”
Wits its singles ubiquitous across MTV and radio airwaves for an extended period from late 1991 through 1992, Blood Sugar Sex Magik was a critical and commercial behemoth that ultimately went platinum seven times over in the US and sold millions more internationally. More importantly, the album functioned as the tipping point from which the Red Hot Chili Peppers have cultivated quite a prolific and celebrated career. Still going very strong, as evidenced by their recently released eleventh studio album The Getaway, they’ve enjoyed a remarkable run defined by superior songcraft (1999’s Californication and 2002’s By the Way being the unequivocal standouts).
In other words, the Red Hot Chili Peppers have weathered the storm and they’ve weathered it damn well.